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Duke women in STEM battle the gap

With a recent study showing that popular stereotypes—rather than lack of ability— may be responsible for the gender gap in certain fields, Duke women note that females in STEM fields face a variety of obstacles.

A study by Princeton University researchers earlier this month indicated that a cultural obsession with genius may be responsible for the gender gap in certain fields, most notably science, technology, engineering and math—or “STEM”—subjects, though certain non-STEM subjects were represented as well. The study found that in academic fields dominated by men, hard work is valued less than inborn intellect, or genius—which is stereotypically associated with white males, researchers said. The idea that superior intellect is a prerequisite for success is pervasive in certain fields, noted Ingrid Daubechies, James B. Duke professor of mathematics.

“I tend to find this attitude that you can only be good at math if you’re already good at it—that attitude I see a lot, and I tend to speak up against it because it’s just not true,” Daubechies said. “Mathematics stems from being able to see that something is just the same as something else. That is something that is intensely human—that we all share.”

Researchers of the Princeton study noted that genius is most frequently associated with men in popular culture. Stereotypes of women’s inferior intellects might help explain why women are underrepresented in fields that place greater value on inborn talent, the study concluded.

The gender gap can oftentimes be interpreted as a confidence gap, said Sarah Schott, associate director of undergraduate studies in mathematics. Schott expressed concern that many women she has taught have ingrained notions of their own abilities—or lack thereof—prior to even entering the course.

“Sometimes, I feel like when I’m teaching these women, they already feel like they shouldn’t be studying something,” she said.

Schott, who currently runs a math mentoring program for first-year women, has also found that women are more inclined to blame themselves for lack of success in a certain course.

“The women in my classes feel like it’s something with themselves, while the men feel like it’s the material,” Schott said. “When they struggle with something, women tend to think, ‘It’s because I’m not good at this.’”

Junior Michaela Walker, a biomedical engineering major who initially struggled with organic chemistry, cited the feeling that chemistry wasn’t her "thing” as something that deterred her from succeeding in the first place.

“Once I got out of that mentality, I realized I was just not working hard enough at it because I had thought it wasn’t ‘worth it,’” she said.

The lack of female role models in certain subjects, particularly STEM fields, may be a major deterring factor for young women, Daubechies noted. She added that there tend be a higher proportion of women in her sections than parallel sections taught by men—suggesting that women may even be flocking to classes taught by a female professor.

Students’ preoccupation with effortless perfection may also factor into stereotypes about intellect, noted Walker.

“At Duke, there’s this stigma associated with trying hard—it’s supposed to look effortless,” she said. “It can be discouraging to see this expectation in the media of the math genius who can do so much, so effortlessly. People think, ‘If I can’t do that, why should I be studying advanced mathematics?’”

Sophomore Lauren Shum, an electrical engineering major, added that the perception of being exceptionally intelligent may often serve as an underlying motivation for many students to succeed and to portray themselves as having done so effortlessly.

“The extrinsic motivation is the public perception that you are a genius,” Shum said. “They think, ‘Wow, I cannot do that. That person is cool.’ It’s the same thing being part of a field that everyone finds it difficult.”

In addition to finding a correlation between the value placed on genius and the representation of women in certain fields, the Princeton study disproved a number of other traditional hypotheses for the gender gap—including that women are less likely to choose fields that require analytical thinking or that they are innately less disposed toward certain subjects.

Sophomore Tina Chen, a computer science major, noted that some students may be discouraged from entering STEM fields by those close to them—even parents.

“Our parents are from an older generation and they believe certain things about the female mind,” Chen said. “I guess that science has always been associated with men and being a female in a male-dominated field is difficult.”

Support from others can be the most important factor in helping a woman stay in fields in which they do not feel confident, Schott said.

“When I talk to women who have succeeded in staying in these fields, the one comment is that someone has believed in them – whether that be a parent or a role model,” she said. “Sometimes, when you don’t feel very confident, it’s perhaps the biggest thing.”